Nasi lemak – a parcel of Malaysian goodness

Nasi lemak © Adrian Cheah

A favourite breakfast dish for most Malaysians is Nasi Lemak – something which transcends the often-tenuous ethnic boundaries in this multi-racial country, as Malays, Indians and Chinese, all love it!

Nasi Lemak is a Malay dish that must have originated from coastal hamlets where coconuts were plentiful and easily obtained. Rice or "nasi" in Bahasa Malaysia is the staple food for most Asians; cooked with santan (coconut milk) and daun pandan (Pandanus leaves) to obtain the rich and aromatic Nasi Lemak.

Being a true-blue Peranakan, I am quick to spot (as would most Penangites) what is usually lacking, that is really needed to make the rice great, is its "lemak"-ness. Nowadays, it is quite rare to come across a packet of good Nasi Lemak where the rice is really "lemak". Lemak is the Malay word used to describe the rich creaminess of food, mainly due to the use of thick coconut milk.

Nasi lemak © Adrian Cheah

Johnny’s Nasi Lemak, next to the Pulau Tikus market is one of the few places in Penang that has the rice cooked beautifully when it comes to serving a delicious plate of Nasi Lemak. The rice is truly lemak and fragrant. Johnny opens at 9:00 am and to avoid disappointment, it is recommended to be there early. His stall is nestled at the left entrance corner of Jin Hoe Cafe along Cantonment Road. The Nasi Lemak is served with assam prawns (tamarind fried prawns), fried ikan selar kuning (yellowtail scad) and sliced cucumber as well as a spoonful of spicy sambal belacan that makes all the difference in the offering. Indulge and be ready for a satisfying treat!

Nasi lemak © Adrian Cheah

Common throughout Penang, Nasi Lemak is mostly served with spicy ikan bilis (anchovies), peanuts and sambal (spicy gravy), some with an option of sambal prawns, a slice of fried fish or half an egg. Nasi Lemak parcels are available throughout the day from street vendors, usually pre-packed with banana leaves.

This dish is also popular in buffet lines at hotels and resorts on the island, offering guests a wider choice of dishes such as sambal squid, curry chicken, beef rendang, fried fish, stir-fried vegetables, fried or hard-boiled eggs, roasted peanuts, crispy anchovies and crackers.

Nasi lemak © Adrian Cheah

The astoundingly popular Ali Nasi Lemak Daun Pisang stall located at Sri Weld Food Court in Beach Street thrives with brisk business from 8:30 am right up to 4:00 pm. The Nasi Lemak is prepared right there and then. Freshly cooked rice is scooped onto banana leaves, served either with egg, chicken, fish, salted fish, squid or shrimps and topped with fiery sambal ikan bilis. It is then folded into neat conical packets. I will usually opt for at least two packets as one is never enough. What makes Ali's nasi lemak scrumptious is the brilliant combination of its moist, fragrant rice and the lip-smacking sambal ikan bilis.

The stall was founded in 2004 by the late Mansor bin Musa, known as Ali in his kampung near Pantai Merdeka in Kedah. This eatery humble beginning dates back to Mansor's days as a factory worker in Penang. The inspiration for establishing a nasi lemak stall came when an Indonesian colleague shared a cherished nasi lemak recipe. Fueled by this culinary passion, Mansor joined forces with his wife, Wasnita binti Idris, to craft the renowned Ali Nasi Lemak Daun Pisang. Although Mansor passed away in 2016, his legacy lives on through his son, Safiq bin Mansor, who continues to run the stall alongside his mother. In 2023, as this unassuming stall earned its well-deserved spot on the Michelin Guide’s Selected List of distinguished eateries, one can imagine Mansor's spirit beaming proudly from beyond.

Nasi lemak © Adrian Cheah

Purists say that Nasi Lemak ought to be enjoyed in an authentic setting at a teh tarik stall (wooden pushcart with tables and benches usually under a shady tree) washed down with a frothy cup of teh tarik ("pulled tea”).

Since Nasi Lemak is rather popular in Penang, it is easily available almost everywhere throughout the island as well as the mainland, be it at fancy restaurants and hotels or at humble roadside stalls. You can enjoy it around the clock for breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, dinner and supper. Be adventurous and scout the land for the best Nasi Lemak as you might be in for a surprise in your next parcel of goodness.

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah 
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Updated 7 March 2024